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The Pamphlet Collection of Sir Robert Stout: Volume 28

Ten o'clock

Ten o'clock.

The coach to which I sat listening rumbled up to the gate and stopped. Puzzled for the moment, and feeling as inhospitable as I knew how, I went down to the door. The driver was already on the steps, with a bundle in his arms that proved to be a rather minute child; and a lady, veiled, was just stepping from the carriage into the rain. Of course I came to my senses at that, and, calling to PhŒbe that Mrs Forceythe had come, sent her out an umbrella.

She surprised me by running lightly up the steps. I had imagined a somewhat advanced age and a sedate amount of infirmities, to be necessary concomitants of aunthood. She came in all sparkling with rain-drops, and, gently pushing aside the hand with which I was trying to pay her driver, said, laughing :—"Here we are, bag and baggage, you see, 'big trunk, little trunk,' &c., &c. You did not expect me? Ah, my letter missed then. It is too bad to take you by storm in this way. Come, Faith! No, don't trouble about the trunks just now. Shall I go right in here?"

Her voice had a sparkle in it, like the drops on her veil, but it was low and very sweet. I took her in by the dining-room fire, and was turning to take off the little girl's things, when a soft hand stayed me, and I saw that she had drawn off the wet veil. A face somewhat pale looked down at me,—she is taller than I—with large compassionate eyes.

"I am too wet to kiss you, but I must have a look," she said, smiling. "That will do. You are like your mother, very like."

I don't know what possessed me, whether it was the sudden, sweet feeling of kinship with something alive, or whether it was her face or her voice, or all together, but I said :—"I don't think you are too wet to be kissed," and threw my arms about her neck—I am not of the kissing kind, either, and I had on my new bombazine, and she page 19 was very wet. I thought she looked pleased. Phoebe was sent to open the register in the blue room, and as soon as it was warm I went up with them, leading Faith by the hand. I am unused to children, and she kept stepping on my dress, and spinning around and tipping over, in the most astonishing manner. It strikingly reminded me of a top at the last gasp. Her mother observed that she was tired and sleepy. Phoebe was waiting around awkwardly up stairs, with fresh towels on her arm. Aunt Winifred turned and held out her hand. "Well, PhŒbe, I am glad to see you. This is PhŒbe, I am sure? You have altered with everything else since I was here before. You keep bright and well, I hope, and take good care of Miss Mary?"

It was a simple enough thing, to be sure, her taking the trouble to notice the old servant with whom she had scarcely ever exchanged a half-dozen words; but I liked it. I liked the way, too, in which it was done. It reminded me of Roy's fine, well-bred manner towards his inferiors,—always cordial, yet always appropriate; I have heard that our mother had much the same.

I tried to make things look as pleasant as I could down stairs, while they were making ready for tea. The grate was raked up a little, a bright supper-cloth laid on the table, and the curtains drawn. Phoebe mixed a hasty cake of some sort, and brought out the heavier pieces of silver—tea-pot &c., which I do not use when I am alone, because it is so much trouble to take care of them, and because I like the little Wedgwood set that Roy had for his chocolate.

"How pleasant!" said Aunt Winifred, as she sat down with Faith in a high chair beside her, Phoebe had a great hunt up garret for that chair; it has been stowed away there since it and I parted company. "How pleasant everything is here! I believe in bright dining-rooms. There is an indescribable dinginess to most that I have seen, which tends to anything but thankfulness. Homesick, Faith? No; that's right. I don't think we shall be homesick at Cousin Mary's."

If she had not said, the probabilities are that they would have been, for I have fallen quite out of the way of active housekeeping, and have almost forgotten how to entertain a friend. But I do not want her good opinion wasted, and mean they shall have a good time if I can make it for them.

It was a little hard at first to see her opposite me at the table; it was Roy's place.

While she was sitting there in the light, with the dust and weariness of travel brushed away a little, I was able to make up my mind what this aunt of mine looks like.

She is young, then, to begin with, and I find it necessary to reiterate the fact, in order to get it into my stupid brain. The cape and spectacles, the little old woman's shawl and invalid's walk, for which I had prepared myself, persist in hovering before my bewildered eyes, ready to drop down on her at a moment's notice. Just thirty-five she is by her own showing; older than I to be sure; but as page 20 we passed in front of the mirror together, once to-night, I could not see half that difference between us. The peace of her fair face and the pain of mine contrast sharply, and give me an old, worn look, beside her. After all, though, to one who had seen much of life, hers would be the true maturity perhaps—the maturity of repose. A look in her eyes once or twice gave me the impression that she thinks me rather young, though she is far too wise and delicate to show it. I don't like to be treated like a girl. I mean to find out what she does think.

My eyes have been on her face the whole evening, and I believe it is the sweetest face—woman's face—that I have ever seen. Yet she is far from being a beautiful woman. It is difficult to say what makes the impression; scarcely any feature is accurate, yet the tout ensemble seems to have no fault. Her hair, which must have been bright bronze once, has grown gray—quite gray—before its time. I really don't know of what colour her eyes are; blue, perhaps, most frequently, but they change with every word that she speaks; when quiet, they have a curious, far-away look, and a steady, lambent light shines through them. Her mouth is well cut and delicate, yet you do not so much notice that as its expression. It looks as if it held a happy secret, with which, however near one may come to her, one can never intermeddle. Yet there are lines about it and on her forehead, which are proof plain enough that she has not always floated on summer seas. She yet wears her widow's black, but relieves it pleasantly by white at the throat and wrists. Take her altogether, I like to look at her.

Faith is a round, rolling, rollicking little piece of mischief, with three years and a half of experience in this very happy world. She has black eyes and a pretty chin, funny little pink hands all covered with dimples, and a dimple in one cheek besides. She has tipped over two tumblers of water, scratched herself all over playing with the cat, and set her apron on fire already since she has been here. I stand in some awe of her; but, after I have become initiated, I think that we shall be very good friends.

"Of all names in the catalogue," I said to her mother, when she came down into the parlour after putting her to bed, "Faith seems to be about the most inappropriate for this solid-bodied, twinkling little bairn of yours, with her pretty red cheeks, and such an appetite for supper!"

"Yes," she said, laughing, "there is nothing spirituelle about Faith. But she means just that to me. I could not call her anything else. Her father gave her the name." Her face changed, but did not sadden; a quietness crept into it and into her voice, but that was all.

"I will tell you about it sometime,—perhaps," she added, rising and standing by the fire. "Faith looks like him." Her eyes assumed their distant look, "like the eyes of those who see the dead," and gazed away,—so far away, into the fire, that I felt that she would not be listening to anything that I might say, and therefore said nothing.

page 21

We spent the evening chatting cosily. After the fire had died down in the grate (I had PhŒbe light a pine-knot there, because I noticed that Aunt Winifred fancied the blaze in the dining-room), we drew up our chairs into the corner by the register, and roasted away to our heart's content. A very bad habit, to sit over the register, and Aunt Winifred says she shall undertake to break me off it. We talked about everything under the sun,—uncles, aunts, cousins, Kansas and Connecticut, the surrenders, and the assassination, books, pictures, music, and Faith,—O, and PhŒbe and the cat. Aunt Winifred talks well, and does not gossip nor exhaust her resources; one feels always that she has has material in reserve on any subject that is worth talking about.

For one thing I thank her with all my heart: she never spoke of Roy.

Upon reflection, I find that I have really passed a pleasant evening. She knocked at my door just now, after I had written the last sentence, and had put away the book for the night. Thinking that it was Phoebe, I called, "Come in," and did not turn. She had come to the bureau where I stood unbraiding my hair, and touched my arm, before I saw who it was. She had on a crimson dressing-gown of warm flannel, and her hair hung down on her shoulders. Although so gray, her hair is massive yet, and coils finely when she is dressed.

"I beg your pardon," she said, "but I thought you would not be in bed, and I came in to say,—let me sit somewhere else at the breakfast-table, if you like, I saw that I had taken 'the vacant place.' Good night, my dear."

It was such a little thing! I wonder how many people would have noticed it, or taken the trouble to speak of it. The quick perception, the unusual delicacy, these too are like Roy. I almost wish that she had stayed a little longer. I almost think that I could bear to have her speak to me about him.

Faith, in the next room, seems to have wakened from a frightened dream, and I can hear their voices through the wall. Her mother is soothing and singing to her in the broken words of some old lullaby with which Phoebe used to sing Roy and me to sleep, years and years ago. The unfamiliar, home-like sound is pleasant in the silent house. Phoebe, on her way to bed, is stopping on the garret-stairs to listen to it. Even the cat comes mewing up to the door, and purring as I have not heard the creature purr since the old Sunday-night singing, hushed so long ago.